Musings

On Writing: Villains

writing

I like reading advice on writing from other authors. Many times I find really great ideas that help improve my own writing abilities. For example, in On Writing, Stephen King (2001)recommends listening to music to help a writer block out the world and focus on the work at hand. Readers of this blog will know how I took this advice to heart!

Certain advice, though, does not resonate with me. For example—certain writers suggest modeling villains after people in your own life that you dislike. I would find that difficult advice to implement in my writing.

First—there is the time factor. Writing a novel generally takes time. Even if a writer aims for a thousand words a day of good, solid prose, the writing stretches into months. Imagine this time actively thinking about people you do not like. This would not be an enjoyable activity in my perspective.

As a writer, I want to like my villains. Not everything that they do—many of their activities to me would be morally objectionable. But I need to understand them—to know why they are doing certain activities so that I can put this down on the page. I need to sympathize with their motivations and to realize that, in most instances, the villains do not see themselves as evil. These characters need the same depth as the heroes or, in my opinion, they will never be more than a caricature.

In Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett (1991, p. 185) has the villain of the story, Lilith, makes the following comparison:

“She wondered whether there was such a thing as the opposite of a fairy godmother. Most things had their opposite, after all. If so, she wouldn’t be a bad fairy godmother, because that’s just a good fairy godmother seen from a different viewpoint.”

Later in the story, readers learn that Lilith firmly believes she is the good fairy godmother and is not the villain. It’s a matter of perspective, and in her viewpoint, those working against her are evil. She’s trying to improve people’s lives, and those working against her are trying to impede progress.

This is not the only type of villain in literature, but it is the type that I tend to find the most interesting. It is why I can sympathize with Khan in Star Trek (both in Into Darkness and in Space Seed) and Loki in The Avengers while at the same time being morally appalled by many of their actions.

There are obvious exceptions to this—Sauron in The Lord of the Rings trilogy does not generate sympathy for many readers, (although Tolkien does give him a fascinating history in The Silmarillion that explains his fall into darkness) but the Nazguls always had a touch of sympathy to their story for me because they were tricked by Sauron into becoming the Ring Wraiths. The detail and care that Tolkien invests into the story keeps these characters from being caricatures.

4 comments

  1. Villains definitely need depth! They do have their motivations, like you explained with Khan and Loki. In Book 1 of my series, you see the cruel things that Z’Lé does, and by the end of it you learn his motivations. It’s the same with Zarrek and Loracaz III in book three. Why did Loaracaz turn out to be so cruel? There’s a good reason for that.
    Villains are rarely just pure evil. I’ll admit, the god of evil is, but as for the mortal characters, there has to be an explanation. They think that they’re doing the right thing, that their actions and methods are necessary and justifiable. Whether it’s a game, a book, or a movie, your protagonist needs an antagonist, but from my experience, the really popular works have well-developed protagonists, not someone two-dimensional or ‘just plain evil.’ If the villain think he has a perfectly good reason for burning the village down, the story comes to life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true! Villains sometimes need even more depth than heroes. It seems to be easier (for me at least) to understand why someone is being heroic rather than being a villain.

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      1. Yes–it is not the way I would react, but the way this character reacts. This is an important distinction that I focus on in my writing. Stepping outside yourself and seeing things from an alternative perspective in writing helps create these multi-layered characters.

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